Job changes every day for avalanche info center staffers
ASPEN – The high winds that buffeted the upper slopes around Aspen during the last storm helped create a snowpack that is highly variable and drastically different even within short distances, according to a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).
“At the moment, I’d say there’s no easy way to describe our snowpack,” said forecaster Brian McCall of Aspen. “It changes from one slope to the next.”
There have already been five reported avalanches that buried, carried or killed people in Colorado this season. The death of the ski patrol director at Wolf Creek Ski Area in southwest Colorado in a slide Nov. 22 drove home the point that conditions are unpredictable, as they typically are early in the season.
In a different accident on Berthoud Pass two days before the fatal slide, a snowboarder was caught, carried and injured in an avalanche.
There were eight people killed by avalanches in Colorado last winter.
The CAIC just activated its website last week. Daily updates on weather and avalanche danger are available from McCall and Scott Toepfer.
Toepfer wrote on Friday that warming temperatures following recent snow and bitterly cold temperatures create the risk of increased avalanche activity. In addition, the high winds with the last storm created wind slabs in the snowpack on slopes facing north, northeast and east above treeline. Those wind slabs add stress to buried weak layers from earlier storms.
The highest variability is in the snowpack above treeline, according to Toepfer’s report. “Near and below treeline, the old snowpack also contains a few weak layers of concern,” he wrote.
He advised backcountry adventurers to search middle and lower portions of the snowpack for sugary layers of faceted snow and “an old rain crust formed during the late October storm.” Avalanche activity could be triggered on or around both of those snowpack layers, Toepfer said.
The conditions constantly evolve so CAIC updates its assessments daily. Its website is found at http://avalanche.state.co.us/index.php, then click on the link for “backcountry forecasts” and drop down to avalanche forecasts for the Aspen area.
The website uses the same five-level danger scale as last season, but each rating comes with an enhanced description this season.
The CAIC intends to share more of the information supplied by backcountry travelers for its observations page this winter. Forecasters often summarized the information sent in to the CAIC. This season, it will also post the entire observations, including expanded descriptions when its forecasters go into the field or reports filed by backcountry skiers, riders and snowmobilers who have a close call.
“Folks will be able to see all the information that’s sent into our office,” McCall said.
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Don’t freak out if you see helicopters hovering over the Roaring Fork Valley backcountry or fixed-wing aircraft making repeated trips. It is part an annual wildlife study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.